Game-related ramblings.

Scratching That Itch: Black Heart

This is the fourth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Next up in my random perusal of the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is Black Heart, by boyproblems. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

A Carly Rae Jepsen-themed cultist TTRPG one-shot.

And here I was thinking it would be Calexico-themed.

Black Heart is the first tabletop entry in the bundle that I’ve encountered. If you’re not familiar with the acroynm, “TTRPG” stands for “tabletop role-playing game“, referring to games similar to Dungeons & Dragons, where players create characters and adopt their personas, having adventures or otherwise creating new stories with the help of paper, pencils, and dice. This presents a slight problem, as outlined in this section of the Black Heart book:

I have two six-sided dice. I do not have 4-6 players. On top of that, I’m rather inexperienced with tabletop role-playing games. I only played Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition) for the first time recently, and only finished one adventure module and started a second before things fizzled out as players gradually lost interest and real life intervened. I enjoyed exploring and fighting goblins, but found it hard to adjust to the improvisational nature of the game, especially when I needed to act in character. Put simply, I am a bad actor. I managed by detaching myself from proceedings, saying things like “I think my character would do this” rather than speaking as my character, and things got easier as I realized just how silly a lot of these games can be. But I never got fully comfortable with improvising in character, and many smaller indie tabletop role-playing games lean hard into that aspect. Games like Fiasco, another “one-shot” game that’s played in a single session, and is basically about acting out scenes with your friends.

Still, I would have gathered my resolve and played Black Heart anyway, if I didn’t have that “4-6 players” problem. Instead, I could only read through the book, and offer my thoughts on it here. I went in expecting a more freeform experience like Fiasco, but Black Heart actually provides a lot of structure for players to build their stories upon.

In Black Heart, players take on the roles of villagers who are members of a secret cult that hopes to reincarnate the spirit of Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen. This is not a joke. The setting seems to be a distant future in which society has regressed, as the town of Arcadia doesn’t have anything more advanced than a blacksmith. The specifics of the background story are up to the Game Master (GM), who hosts the game and prepares story threads for the other players to experience, but many things are laid out already in the book. There are twelve roles that players may assume, like the Innkeeper or the Merchant, and each comes with a special ability. The GM assumes any roles not taken by players at appropriate times. There are twelve corresponding locations in the town, which players can visit during the game. Play is spread over seven days, during which the boundaries between reality and the dimensions beyond are slowly thinning, until the time at which the summoning may be attempted. Each day, players visit locations within the town and attempt challenges in the hopes of increasing their statistics so they will be ready when the summoning comes. But each night, they must weather a town meeting full of suspicious townsfolk, and attempt to protect the secrecy of the cult.

There are “core stats” which apply in many situations, but what’s most interesting is the “Weird” stat, which represents the extent of a character’s contact with things beyond our mortal realm. Upon gaining enough Weird, characters can earn a random mutation, offering stat boosts and a game-changing ability or other character quirk. These are all named after Carly Rae Jepsen songs or lyrics. For example, the mutation “I go crazy, see red when she’s touching you” makes a character disappear across the veil in moments of intense anger, only to return covered in blood. Pretty standard Carly Rae Jepsen stuff.

After seven days, the summoning ritual starts, in which characters take on new roles based on their current stats. What struck me about this part of the game is that the most likely outcome is a “partial success”, offering the GM a chance for some imaginative storytelling. The book suggests that this could mean that the group summoned the wrong god, or summoned the right god but at great cost, or warped reality in some strange way. There’s room for some seriously weird manifestations of Carly Rae Jepsen here, is what I’m saying.

There’s a lot of structure to how the game plays out, then, but the actual mechanics for it all are very simple. There’s no exploration aspect like there is in Dungeons & Dragons, so it really all boils down to the challenges, which are simple dice rolls modified by characters’ levels in the relevant stats. Town meetings use the same type of dice rolls, as does the final summoning. Played without any story elements, Black Heart would be a short game of dice rolling and luck, so it’s the strength of those story elements that will make it enjoyable. This does place pressure on the GM to guide things in compelling directions, but the framework provided in the book is a great starting point. The tone of the setting recalls classic horror tales such as those of H. P. Lovecraft and his many imitators, with its quiet town where dark and deeply strange things are brewing in secrecy. Where terrible realities hide just beyond the world we perceive. In fact, this tone is so strong that the connection to Carly Rae Jepsen could be incidental; characters in the game don’t even know her name, referring to her only as “the god”, so certain GMs and player groups could emphasize or de-emphasize her role in things as they see fit. But then, there’s this intriguing tidbit in the section of the book offering guidelines for GMs:

I admit my curiosity was piqued. Some quick googling informed me that Boy Problems is an earlier tabletop role-playing game one-shot from boyproblems, set in a cyberpunk future where players are hired to pull off a daring heist to ransack the secret vault containing over 200 unreleased Carly Rae Jepsen songs. Which is apparently real. I checked, and must inform you that Boy Problems is not included in the bundle. Just in case you were wondering. Regardless, it seems the authors’ appreciation for Carly Rae Jepsen is genuine, but Black Heart could be enjoyed even by players who do not share it.

But if you happen to like the idea of a tabletop role-playing game about secret cultists attempting an arcane summoning ritual, and are a fan of Carly Rae Jepsen? Look no further, boyproblems has you covered with Black Heart.

Well, that’s four games down, and a cool 1700 1737 to go. I wonder what will pop up next!

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Keeping Score: Celeste

2 Comments

  1. I am enjoying this series.

    If it is not already in your list, I would liek to request you give your take on “The Corrupted Kingdom by Jesse Galena” i a not sure what is your definition of game-related, but the author stated that the main trhust of the book was to ake a colection fo short stories that captures the feel of exploring in a Dark Souls games. I rather liked it.
    While th eplot is nothing to write home baout, I think the ambience is top-notch.

    • Glad you’re enjoying the series, and thanks for the recommendation! But I don’t actually have a list, I’m just picking randomly from the entire bundle. I used “game-related things” as a quick shorthand to encompass everything that isn’t actually a game, although I know that includes some things like books and short stories that are not related to games at all. It was easier than explaining what’s in there at length.

      I’ve actually never played any Dark Souls games, although I intend to and I own the first game already. It’s just been a matter of finding a time when I was feeling ready to take the plunge, since I know I’ll end up playing for a long time. I’ll get to it one day, and be sure to write about it here.

      Also, I’m committed to picking bundle entries at random for this series, so I can’t act on your recommendation at the moment. It is appreciated though! At the rate I’m going, it would take me decades to cover everything in the bundle, so I’m sure to grab some things based on recommendations from others eventually.

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